The Looming Tower Explores the FBI and CIA Before 9/11

Posted on March 8, 2018 at 10:32 pm

Hulu’s new series, “The Looming Tower,” is based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction book about the US intelligence agencies in the years before 9/11. His focus is on the rivalry between the heads of the FBI and CIA operations investigating Osama Bin Laden and the rise of Al-Qaeda and how their unwillingness to share information made it impossible to prevent the attack. In the series, adapted by “Capote” screenwriter Dan Futterman, Peter Sarsgaard plays CIA Analyst Martin Schmidt, a fictionalized character, and Jeff Daniels plays John O’Neill, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s counterterrorism operation, who was killed on 9/11 in the World Trade Center.

I interviewed Wright and the actors. On, my interview with Jeff Daniels, Peter Sarsgaard, and Wright talked about the personal and professional animosity that kept the investigators from cooperating and why now could be the time for a deeper look at what happened.

For the MPAA site The Credits, I talked to the actors, including Tahar Rahim and Wrenn Schmidt about the characters they play.

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Actors Interview VOD and Streaming

Black Mass

Posted on September 17, 2015 at 6:00 pm

Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers
The most terrifying image on movie screens this year is the ice blue eyes of crime boss Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, played by Johnny Depp in “Black Mass.” They are opaque, implacable, and piercing. Depp’s performance as the man who was second on the FBI’s Most Wanted List when Osama Bin Laden was number one is a return to form for one of Hollywood’s most talented performers, whose recent films have been a series of disappointments. His Bulger is coiled fury, horrifying when he kills, even more horrifying when gets an FBI official to tell him the secret recipe for a steak marinade and most horrifying of all when he strokes a woman’s face and touches her throat, pretending concern that she may be ill but very clear about the menace he is contemplating.

Director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) has assembled a superb cast to tell a complicated story. Bulger was a full-service crook — a killer, racketeer, extortionist, and drug dealer. When a businessman would not cooperate, he did not waste time making him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Told that he wouldn’t make a deal, he asks, “Will his widow make a deal?” And then the guy gets shot in the parking lot of his country club and she is a widow.

What makes this story different from the usual gangster film is that Bulger was enabled by a childhood friend from the neighborhood who became an FBI agent, John Connelly (Joel Edgerton). At first, they help each other, especially when Bulger tips off the FBI so they can go after his rivals, clearing the way for the expansion of Bulger’s Winter Hill gang into new territories and lines of illegal business. But the FBI ultimately becomes complicit, even turning over to Bulger the names of informants so he can execute them. “Black Mass” is a reference to a Satanic perversion of the Catholic rites of prayer, and this movie is about the secular perversion that has a murderer sharing a jolly Christmas dinner with the most powerful politician in the state (Bulger’s brother Billy, played with wily street smarts by Benedict Cumberbatch) and the FBI agent who is supposed to be investigating him.

Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (based on the book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, keep the pressure taut. It opens on the close-up of one of Bulger’s Winter HIll gang, insisting he is not a rat, but making it clear is his about to tell the police what he knows. We can see every individual whisker on his cheeks, every bit of scar tissue from a lifetime spent getting beat up and beating up other people. (Extra credit to the makeup department headed by Joel Harlow for the most believable aging I’ve seen in a movie.) The score by Junkie XL is one of the best of the year, and the closing credit sequence is superbly designed.

We see Bulger harden over the years, as though he is freezing from the inside out. There is a lot of talk about loyalty but it is really about pride and power. Its exploration of the compromises that may be necessary to stop someone who operates entirely outside the rules and the implosion of spirit necessary to maintain those compromises gives a texture to the story by asking us to consider who was responsible for more damage and who was more responsible as well. Bulger is a deeply frightening bad guy. But the scarier bad guys are the ones who are supposed to be protecting us from the Bulgers of the world and protect them instead.

Parents should know that this movie is based on the true story of a notorious crime boss. It includes many brutal murders, drug dealing, racketeering, corrupt law enforcement, graphic and disturbing images, constant strong language, sexual references, prostitution, drugs, drinking, smoking.

Family discussion: What should the rules be for working with informants who are involved enough with crime to provide reliable testimony? Do you agree with the punishments for the various characters? What would you do differently?

If you like this, try: “The Departed” (Jack Nicholson’s character was in part inspired by Bulger) and “Goodfellas,” and the documentary “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger”

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Based on a true story Crime Drama

Peter Sarsgaard Visits the Pirates Convention

Posted on September 19, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Celebrate “Talk Like a Pirate Day” with a look at this delightful sketch from “Saturday Night Live” with Peter Sarsgaard visiting a Pirate’s Convention and finally figuring out why they really wanted him to be there.

And don’t forget the delightfully piratical Tim Curry in “Muppet Treasure Island:”

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Comic-Con: Coming Attractions

Posted on July 27, 2010 at 12:13 am

One of the highlights of Comic-Con is the very early glimpses of the films that are still in production. The big, splashy events for the movies opening in the next few months are great, but the people behind the movies not opening until next summer and beyond give us a chance to meet in smaller settings and hear their thoughts as they are in the midst of making the films.
I attended a press conferences for next year’s release of “The Green Lantern” with Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, and Mark Strong. IMG_0115.JPG It will be an origin story, and Reynolds described it as “‘Star Wars’ in the DC Universe.” He plays a character who has had “a bit of a tortured life” and is “arrogant, cocky, and aimless” until…an unexpected power sets him on a different course.
IMG_0134.JPGZack Snyder (“300,” “The Watchmen”) and the stars of his upcoming movie, “Sucker Punch” had a press conference after showing Comic-Con attendees the first trailer of the film, a different-levels-of-reality story with characters trying to escape from a sort of prison/mental hospital/brothel — with dance numbers and a lot of fight scenes. Snyder also explained why he chose to shoot in 2D so his camera movement would not be limited, even though he had just completed work on the 3D “Legend of the Guardians.” Stars Vanessa Hudgens, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung, and Emily Browning talked about the “boot camp” they had to attend for fitness and fight training to make a movie that is “all the way, all the time.”

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Festivals Trailers, Previews, and Clips

An Education

Posted on March 30, 2010 at 8:00 am

Part of the charm of “An Education,” a bittersweet coming of age story based on a brief memoir by Lynn Barber, is how much we know what its main character does not. Jenny (an incandescent Carey Mulligan) is a teenager in 1961 London, over-protected by her overly-cautious and conventional parents and eager to be independent and to have adventures. She is used to being the smartest one in the class and so even more than most teenagers, she is convinced that she understands many important things her parents cannot possibly comprehend. She is eager to grow up, to seem sophisticated, to be sophisticated. She is innocent, filled with potential, willing to be taught — and she has no idea how powerfully attractive those qualities are to a predatory older man.

But we know that, and when David (Peter Sarsgaard) rescues Jenny and her cello from a rainstorm by giving her a ride home, we know she will confuse urbanity with wisdom, that she will think that because he lies on her behalf he will not lie to her. But the most important thing we know is that like Jenny, London is also on the brink of enormous changes. We know that a world of opportunities she could never imagine will open up to her. Unlike Jenny, we know she is going to be fine. After all, we know she went on to tell her story, in itself a triumph over whatever went wrong and whatever she lost.

Danish director Lone Scherfig perfectly captures London just as it is about to move from the drab, stiff-upper-lip, world of post-WWII deprivation to the brash and explosive era of mods and rockers, Carnaby Street and the Beatles, Twiggy, “The Avengers,” and Joe Orton. Part of what makes David so exciting is that Jenny believes that the only options available to her are teacher and housewife and the only examples of both she has seen appear dull and unrewarding. David gives her a glimpse of a life that is never dull. It is always shopping and parties and travel, pretty clothes and lovely restaurants. If in order to have all of that she must lie to her parents and defy her teachers, that makes it all the more exciting. It binds her to him even more, creating a set of rules that is just for them.

That is how it seems, anyway. The education referred to in the movie title tells us that she will learn some difficult lessons. But its conclusion reminds Jenny and us that it is only the end of her beginning. She thought meeting David was the beginning of her future; she learns that the real beginning only came afterward.

The screenplay by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”) is sympathetic but insightful, skillful in sketching in each of the characters. Sarsgaard also makes David more than a predator. Jenny is not just smarter than he is; she is stronger, too. As Jenny goes from school girl to dressed-up doll to the beginning of adulthood, from the make-it-do, wear-it-out modesty of her home to Paris hot spots, Production designer Andrew McAlpine and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux show exquisite sensitivity in giving Jenny a look that tells the story. Every performance is a gem: Alfred Molina, proud but fearful as Jenny’s father, Emma Thompson, starchy as the headmistress, and Olivia Williams, a teacher who wants more for Jenny than she wants for herself (it must have been quite a challenge for hair and make-up to turn Williams into such a dowdy character). Rosamund Pike is utterly charming as a dim but kind-hearted party girl. And Carey Mulligan, in a star-making turn, makes this into one of the best films of the year.

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Based on a book Based on a true story Drama Family Issues Romance
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